Oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and fish and veggies for dinner. While sounding healthy, this approach to diet is lacking in adequate quantity, quality, and timing of protein intake necessary for optimal muscle health. Throughout my decades-long career as a registered dietitian nutritionist and researcher, I have witnessed how the lack of protein intake and poor protein timing have led to reduced muscle quality and physical function. That’s why I joined Vivo as a scientific advisor; Vivo is a science-backed, live, online, and interactive exercise and nutrition program.
Why Protein is Key for Health
Protein supports the body by building muscle, repairing tissue to help keep skin and organs healthy, and makes antibodies to assist our bodies in fighting infection and disease. Unfortunately, in the United States, one out of every three adults over the age of 50 do not get adequate protein intake. This deficiency places people at greater risk for skin and hair changes, fatigue, and muscle weakness.
Why Stronger Muscles Matter
Even if we do not desire to be a body builder, we all should aspire to strong, healthy muscles. Muscle strength enables independence and our ability to continue to do the things we love. When my 97-year-old great-grandmother began to get weaker, she lost her independence. I witnessed how detrimental that was to her mental health and quality of life. And throughout my research, I’ve seen that when people have the best tools for exercise and nutrition, they can maintain their independence and quality of life as long as possible.
To keep our muscles healthy as we age, we need to follow three major principles: 1) distributed protein intake throughout the day, 2) high quality protein taken from animal sources, and 3) supplement nutrition with exercise, particularly strength training.
Eat Protein Throughout Your Day
Unfortunately, most American diets focus on protein-rich meals only at dinner. Research from my lab at the Duke University School of Medicine shows that we can improve function when 30 grams of high-quality protein is consumed three times per day. The repeated stimulation of protein synthesis that occurs with protein intake throughout the day helps maintain muscle mass as we age, providing the muscle necessary for physical function.
Higher protein intake is even more critical as we get older. With aging, there are increased protein demands due to greater anabolic resistance or blunted rates of muscle protein synthesis. Sadly, low protein intake is also associated with higher rates of mortality and disability. The message is clear: we need to eat more protein and eat it more regularly throughout the day for optimal health.
Eat Protein from Animal Sources
Research shows that the highest quality protein source is that which comes from an animal because this protein contains all the essential amino acids needed for muscle health. In particular, animal sources contain leucine which is a primary driver for muscle protein synthesis and growth. Look for lean animal sources, as well as consider eggs and dairy products to achieve 30 grams of protein intake at every meal.
While there are other sources of protein such as nuts and beans, these protein sources are not digested as well in our bodies. As such, we are forced to consume more (and subsequently more calories) in order to reap the benefits to muscle health.
Exercise to Optimize Nutrition
Protein enhances the quality of muscle and when we combine that with an exercise program that incorporates strength training (working our muscles against resistance) the results are the most effective way to build muscle strength and physical fitness.
About the author: Kathryn Starr RD, PhD is an assistant professor at the Duke School of Medicine and research health scientist at the Durham Health Care System. She is a scientific advisor for Vivo, an online, live, and interactive exercise and nutrition program built on the science of strength training.